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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 749: debated on Thursday 2 May 2024

Business and Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

Forced Labour: Product Ban

1. If she will introduce legislative proposals to ban products from UK markets that are made with or transported using forced labour. (902612)

The Government recognise the importance of ensuring that UK businesses respect human rights throughout their operations. We continue to keep this area under review and will work with our international partners to understand the most effective ways of tackling forced labour in supply chains.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. However, companies with well-documented links to Uyghur slave labour are dumping their goods here in the UK. That is because the United States has introduced the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act and the EU has acted similarly. Last month, I, along with 43 Members of this House and 32 human rights organisations, wrote a joint statement calling for import controls on solar panels. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss that and to finally bring forward measures to clean up our supply chains?

The Government are clear that British businesses and solar developers should not stand for receiving solar panels from companies linked to forced labour. We have already taken steps to address the issue through the Procurement Act 2023 and the Modern Slavery Act 2015. In addition, the forthcoming UK solar road map will outline a clear path to reaching our solar deployment ambitions, including on energy security. I reassure my hon. Friend that sustainable solar supply chains will form a central chapter of that road map, and I would be happy to either arrange or have a meeting with her.

Horizon: Northern Ireland Postmasters

2. What steps her Department is taking to support postmasters affected by errors in the Horizon IT system in Northern Ireland. (902613)

On Monday, the House agreed a Government amendment to the Horizon exoneration Bill—the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill—to include convictions in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Executive faced unique challenges in delivering their own legislation in a timely manner. Including Northern Ireland in the Bill ensures that postmasters there are not left behind, and receive exoneration and access to compensation on a UK-wide basis.

First, let me put on record my thanks to the Minister, who has been an industrious, assiduous and great champion for the postmasters and postmistresses across this United Kingdom. There is not a person in the House who does not have great respect for him.

Further to Monday’s business in the House regarding that Northern Ireland provision in the Horizon Bill, which was brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), will the Minister outline a timeline so that postmasters and postmistresses across all of Northern Ireland can see an end to the reputational and financial damage, and the heartache caused by the disgraceful operation of the Horizon scheme?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kinds words. It is always a pleasure to work with him and his colleagues. It is our intention that the legislation will clear both Houses by July, although obviously not all of these things are within our gift. Should that be the case, as we fully expect it to be, the convictions will be quashed in July and compensation redress will be paid from August.

Export Target

UK exports were £862 billion in the 12 months to February. UK services exports reached a record £472 billion in the same period, which is an increase of 10%—they went up by £42 billion. Businesses, including small and medium-sized enterprises, can access my Department’s wealth of export support at That support includes the UK Export Academy, which has had more than 18,000 registrations; our 160 international trade advisers, who help about 6,000 SMEs each year; and 388 export champions, across every part of the UK.

I am pleased to tell my right hon. Friend that we are. There are many, many more good statistics, which he will find in the publication my Department produced at the end of January; it contains further good news stories on UK exports. The UK is a global exporting superpower and the world’s second biggest services exporter. Services exports to the European Union are at a record high and have increased by 36% since 2018.

My right hon. Friend has just detailed very encouraging data, much of which results from the hard work of SMEs. Will she give a bit more information about what support is available specifically to SMEs to help them grow and export more of their products and services?

The Department has declared this year the year of the SME. People often hear news that sounds as though it is just about big business, but SMEs employ most of the people in the UK. We have a network of 160 international trade advisers and our export support services. We have also put in place schemes such as a Help to Grow management course, which 5,290 participants had completed by November. We also have a business support service, which provides support to about 30,000 people in England every year.

Further to those comments about SMEs, in the light of the termination of the trade show access programme, which supported SMEs in gaining international market exposure, what is the Government’s strategy to provide equivalent or enhanced support to ensure UK food products remain competitive within EU markets?

We know that a lot of people are disappointed that we closed the trade show programme, but it was a pilot programme and it did not yield the business successes that we had hoped. We are investing in those things that are providing success and demonstrating real benefits. The UK Export Academy is one of them, along with the export support service, as I mentioned, and the international trade advisers. Many of them will have expertise in food and drink. If the hon. Gentleman writes to us with a specific case, we will be happy to help.

Unfortunately for Government Members, and more importantly for the country, the Office for Budget Responsibility’s recent figures, which I know the Secretary of State struggles with, show that exports have dropped on her watch and are set to have declined again this year. If she has a moment to spare from her leadership campaign, she might read the landmark report published by Aston University last week on the significant boost for British exports that a veterinary agreement could deliver through British farmers and the agrifood industry. Why will she not pursue an agreement that is so obviously in Britain’s national interest?

The OBR puts out lots of figures and the Opposition cherry-pick the ones they think will be most helpful, thinking that we have not done our homework. I encourage the hon. Member to look at the OBR forecasts for growth for this country, which are very high, and I ask him which specific period he is referring to. He should look at what has happened to exports overall, not just periods including covid, which explain why we have had some drops in food exports.

I asked the Secretary of State about the veterinary agreement; I suspect no one on the Opposition Benches will be surprised that she has not shown any interest in a trade agreement that would help British farmers. According to the House of Commons Library, under the last Labour Government exports rose by 55%, but since then exports have risen by only 32%. Is the truth not that British exporters always do better under a Labour Government?

That is absolute rubbish. It is not true. The veterinary agreement that he is talking about would create dynamic alignment with the EU, which is not what this country voted for in 2016. We are delivering what the people voted for. Yes, there will be difficulties—we are sorting them out. It is time that the Opposition moved on and accepted the will of the people.

South Korea: FTA Negotiations

5. What recent progress her Department has made on negotiating a free trade agreement with South Korea. (902616)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the valuable work he is doing as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the Republic of Korea. I look forward to his upcoming visit there. He is famous for his timely interventions. Detailed round 2 discussions on an upgraded FTA took place in London from 18 to 22 March, which provided an opportunity to conclude the exploratory phase of negotiations. We now look forward to text-based negotiations in round 3, which is due to take place in Seoul from 24 June.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer ahead of my visit to Korea next week. Does he agree that the Indo-Pacific region offers huge opportunities for global growth, particularly as it will be home to something like half the world’s middle-class consumers over the coming decades, and therefore that upgrading this agreement is likely to bring huge benefits to the UK?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Indo-Pacific is a vital part of the world for the UK and forms the centrepiece of our strategy going forward diplomatically and on trading ties. He is right that the Republic of Korea will play a vital role in that. The recently signed Downing Street accord with Korea outlines the breadth and depth of the ongoing relationship. We look forward to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership coming into effect later this year, and we look forward to seeing if the Republic of Korea will apply.

I am sure the right hon. Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) does a very effective job in South Korea. I visited myself with the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee a couple of years ago and saw those opportunities. However, there is some concern about transparency around the use of trade envoys. Will the Minister confirm to the House that under this Government no trade envoy has ever demanded and been given the use of a house for their exclusive use?

The hon. Gentleman has slightly jumped the gun, as the next question on the Order Paper relates to trade envoys. May I say how proud we are of the cross-party trade envoy programme, which I think he will hear about in a moment? We think they do an excellent, good value-for-money job for the United Kingdom in promoting trade in a number of key markets.

Parliamentary Trade Envoys

The Prime Minister’s trade envoys provide invaluable support in progressing the UK’s trade and investment agenda in 61 markets across the world. The travel costs incurred by the Prime Minister’s trade envoys were: £63,566 for the financial year 2021-22; £226,014 for 2022-23; and £232,325 for 2023-24. These costs were for flights, for accommodation when the official British residence was unavailable and for other sundry expenses.

There is a great deal of murkiness about the trade envoys. I note that, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), the Minister point blank refused to deny that at least one trade envoy has explicitly asked for the exclusive use of a house while acting as a trade envoy. The Minister has point blank refused to publish the breakdown of all the trade envoys and their costs for absolutely spurious reasons. If a Select Committee visits South Korea, for instance, all the details of the costs are published, but not if a trade envoy goes. How can we possibly judge whether the £750,000 that has been spent so far in the past three years has been well spent? Is there any accountability whatsoever, or is this really just a means of providing sinecures for people who are liked in Government?

Well, there is a lot of bluster there and not a few accusations. The hon. Gentleman may wish to try to stack these things up a bit. It is a cross-party programme, not a Government-only programme. Many Labour MPs, Labour peers and others are members of the programme. Gifts and hospitality are already published in departmental registers. If I may say so, Mr Speaker, two qualifications for this cross-party role are diplomacy and discretion, which might explain why not everybody has been asked to do it.

Scottish Products: Overseas Promotion

7. What recent discussions she has had with the Scottish Government on the promotion of Scottish products in overseas markets. (902619)

My Department works closely with the Scottish Government and their agencies to promote Scottish products in overseas markets. We have recently delivered our Made in Scotland, Sold to the World exporter roadshow in Glasgow. On top of that, I am pleased to say that the PG Paper Company, a brilliant Scottish business, has just received an award in this year’s Made in the UK, Sold to the World awards.

The value of Scotland’s oil exports to the EU reached £9.4 billion in 2023, with total oil exports up 14.7%, so the value of oil as an export commodity cannot be overstated. Those billions of pounds in exports can be balanced against the modest £80 million investment that would increase Grangemouth’s profitability threefold, secure its long-term future and save Grangemouth from closure. Does the Secretary of State accept that it would be absurd for Scotland to be the only major oil-producing nation without a refinery capacity, and will she agree to meet me to discuss this matter further, given that the Scottish Government are otherwise occupied?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. It is something that we are concerned about and the UK and Scottish Governments are working together to understand all the options for the future of the refinery, and working closely on the issue through forums such as the Grangemouth Future Industry Board. I am very happy to meet him—as are other Ministers—to discuss this matter further.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, while there has been great progress in promoting and increasing the export of traditional Scottish products, such as whisky, we also need to support new businesses, such as one in South Lanarkshire that is keen to expand electronic vehicle infrastructure into the United States?

Yes, my right hon. Friend is quite right: our exports need to be about the future, not just about the traditional industries, such as Scottish whisky, which are the pride of Scotland and of the UK. Electric vehicles are one way that we will hit our net zero target, and this is an area that the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero is focused on and that I support in Business and Trade. If there is anything specific that we can look into for his constituency, we would be very happy to help.

Steel Supply Chain Jobs

The UK Government’s £500 million grant will safeguard steelmaking in Port Talbot, 5,000 jobs in the company and thousands more in supply chains across the UK that would otherwise have been under serious threat. The transition board, with a further £100 million of funding—£80 million from the UK Government and £20 million from Tata—will also support those affected. That funding will help supply chain businesses to strengthen and diversify their customer base, creating sustainable jobs and business opportunities in Port Talbot and the wider region.

When it is finally introduced, the carbon border adjustment mechanism will provide a vital tool to ensure that British steelworkers have a level playing field so that they can compete against heavily polluting steel industries in other parts of the world, but recent media reports have indicated that India is lobbying No. 10 for an exemption from the UK CBAM. Does the Minister recognise that CBAMs work only if they are comprehensive across all countries and sectors, and if we start giving exemptions here or there the entire policy will unravel? That is particularly important given that Tata’s plan for Port Talbot is based on importing millions of tonnes of semi-finished product steel from India, a country that produces its steel with significantly higher carbon intensity. Will the Minister confirm that under no circumstances will India be given an exemption from the UK carbon border adjustment mechanism? A yes or no answer will suffice.

I was pleased to visit the hon. Gentleman’s constituency as part of my first round of visits in this new role. I look forward to meeting him again later this month. He is right that the Government are committed to ensuring that UK decarbonisation efforts lead to a true reduction in global emissions. The CBAM policy is still being designed. The consultation is ongoing, and I recommend that he contributes to it.

Residents in Scunthorpe are particularly concerned about steel supply chain jobs related to virgin steelmaking. My hon. Friend’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), was very clear from the Dispatch Box that we obviously need a place for virgin steelmaking in the UK, and that that place is Scunthorpe. Will he confirm that he agrees with her, and that nothing is off the table in his negotiations with British Steel?

I was pleased to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency to meet steelworkers and British Steel management during my visits last month. I know that she is a passionate and dedicated champion for her community and for steelworkers there. I look forward to meeting her again next week ahead of the visit of the Secretary of State to her constituency, and to discussing these matters and others.

No commitment to virgin steel from the Minister, then—what a shame. I welcome him to his place, and note that he visited Port Talbot steelworks last week, but he failed to meet any actual steelworkers of course. Instead of avoiding discussing the Government’s plans for £500 million of taxpayers’ money for the loss of nearly 3,000 jobs, will he please commit to meeting some Port Talbot steelworkers, and will he publish his economic assessment of the impact of the UK losing its capacity to make virgin steel—or is his actual plan to just keep his head down until the Prime Minister finally has the guts to call a general election and leave all these problems piling up for somebody else?

This Conservative Government have given more support to the steel sector than any Government before us. When I went to Port Talbot, I was pleased to meet steelworkers, and I will continue to do so. I also sit on the transition board. I will continue to support steel in south Wales and all the opportunities that the sector will bring.

Caribbean Community: Trade

My hon. Friend is a great champion of international trade, as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy for Mongolia. He will be pleased to know that annual trade between the UK and the Caribbean economic community, CARICOM, in 2023 was £5.1 billion—up 11% in current prices on the previous year. In December 2023, I represented the UK at the inaugural joint council of our economic partnership agreement, where I met representatives of CARICOM and the Dominican Republic, collectively known as CARIFORUM, underlining the importance of our trading relationship and exploring opportunities to further boost trade.

I speak as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary groups on St Kitts and Nevis, Guyana and the Caribbean. It is an extremely important region for the United Kingdom, one of the largest concentrations of British overseas territories and Commonwealth nations in the world, with historic links with the United Kingdom, but the copy-and-paste trade deals that we have with them, carried over from the European Union, are not sufficient. We need a more tailor-made, specific trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the Caribbean Community to ensure that some of those protectionist measures that the European Union imposed on our CARICOM friends can be rescinded. When will that happen?

I thank my hon. Friend for his engagement in the region, in St Kitts, the Caribbean as a whole and Guyana, which remains in all our minds at the moment given the situation on its borders. He is right to highlight the CARIFORUM trade deal; it is a deal that the UK values, and I mentioned that we have had the inaugural meeting of the body designed to ensure that the deal has good effects on our trade with the Caribbean. I might suggest arranging a meeting between my hon. Friend and the trade commissioner Jonathan Knott, who I am sure would be delighted to meet him to discuss Caribbean trade possibilities still further.

Small Businesses: Non-financial Reporting Requirements

10. What steps her Department is taking to reduce non-financial reporting requirements for small businesses. (902622)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his work as one of our trade envoys to the Kingdom of Morocco—I know he is a true diplomat and the soul of discretion. We recently announced that we were raising the monetary thresholds that determine company size, reducing burdens on smaller businesses and removing low-value and overlapping reporting requirements. Around 13,000 medium-sized companies will be reclassified as small companies, and 100,000 small companies will be reclassified as micro-companies. This will save small and medium-sized companies around £145 million a year.

I visit many small businesses in my Aylesbury constituency, and I am always incredibly impressed by their spirit of entrepreneurship and the huge effort and hard work that they put in to succeed. They want to be able to devote as much of their skill and time as possible to finding new customers, selling more of their products and creating jobs, not to bureaucracy, admin and onerous regulation. As the true party of business, our Government have already made great progress supporting business, as the Minister has just outlined, but what more can his Department do to help the small and micro-firms that are the engine of our economy?

My hon. Friend is a real champion of small business, and we meet often talk about these matters. This Government’s policies have pushed the UK to third place in the OECD rankings for start-ups—third out of 39 countries—and we have a suite of programmes to help small businesses. Most importantly, we offer access to finance, with our Start-Up Loans Company, growth guarantee scheme and equity investment schemes, the seed enterprise investment scheme and the enterprise investment scheme. We offer supportive advice through our Help to Grow management suite, including our newly launched “Help to Grow: Management Essentials” course, which is two hours’ free online training for small businesses. We are also removing barriers through non-financial reporting. As well as the monetary size thresholds, we are consulting on increasing the employee size thresholds from 250 employees for a medium-sized company to 500, which will save medium-sized companies a further £150 million a year.

Alongside the despair and financial pressures faced by small businesses, the British Poultry Council recently reported that unreciprocated EU border checks have unfairly saddled UK exporters with £55 million a year in extra costs, while their EU counterparts pay absolutely nothing. Does the Minister agree that this Government’s failure to negotiate a fair sanitary and phytosanitary agreement with the EU has directly undermined British businesses and exposed our exporters to severe competitive disadvantages?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman’s question is put that way. We are trying to make sure that we have a fair and level playing field for UK exporters and EU exporters. Of course we need checks on the borders on that basis—it would not be fair to UK producers if that was not the case—but what he is pushing for in a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement is what his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) was pushing for: dynamic alignment with the EU, which would lock us into EU rules permanently. We do not believe in that. We believe we have a bright future outside the European Union. He would lock us back into the customs union and the single market.

Manufacturing Sector

11. What recent assessment she has made of the contribution of the manufacturing sector to the economy. (902623)

The UK is a global hub for advanced manufacturing, and according to the OECD, the UK’s manufacturing sector has had the fastest growth in the G7 since 2010. The importance of the sector was highlighted in the Manufacturing Technologies Association’s recent “The true impact of UK manufacturing” report. Manufacturing contributed £217 billion gross value added to the UK economy in 2023, and plays an outsized role in the key drivers of growth, including by accounting for over 40% of UK exports.

The UK leads the way in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics and the internet of things, which are important for our future, especially in manufacturing. How is that strengthening British businesses and the British economy?

It is well known across the House that my hon. Friend is a strong champion for manufacturing and advanced technologies. The Government are also strongly committed to supporting research and development and innovation, because they contribute significantly to our economic growth. In particular, industrial technologies such as robotics and AI are supporting manufacturing businesses to be more productive and sustainable. That is why the Government have increased R&D investment to £20 billion a year, and are expanding Made Smarter, our highly successful industrial digitisation programme for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Mainly because of this House’s worship of the false idol of net zero, electricity costs to businesses in the UK are four and a half times higher than those in China and three times higher than those in India. Can the Minister explain how manufacturing businesses in the UK can compete with that on world markets?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the introduction of the British industry supercharger, which reduces electricity costs for major energy-intensive industries. I hope that it will benefit businesses in his constituency and across the country.

A key sector of the manufacturing economy is the plastics industry, which employs 155,000 people and has an annual turnover of £28.7 billion. In July 2023, the UK Government began a consultation on the plastic packaging tax and the methodology behind it. In February, some 14 organisations signed a joint letter to the Government urging the swift publication of that consultation. When exactly do the Government expect to be able to respond to that long-overdue consultation?

The hon. Gentleman is right: the UK plastics industry is highly important and contributed £8.2 billion to the economy last year. I am aware of the consultation, which is led by the Treasury, and I will ensure that he gets a reply.

United States: Trade

Over the past two years, UK-US trade has grown 35% from £230 billion to £311 billion, while shared investment between our two nations now totals over £1.1 trillion. In March, following the excellent work of our trade envoy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Sir Conor Burns), I signed a state-level arrangement with Texas. That means that UK businesses now have memorandums of understanding with eight US states with a combined GDP equivalent to a quarter of the whole US economy.

I am delighted to report that US motorsport giant Andretti has shown a massive vote of confidence in the UK by taking 40,000 square feet of facilities in Buckinghamshire, with another 70,000 square feet on order, and is already employing over 100 people locally in high-tech jobs. That clearly opens up huge opportunities for automotive and motorsport supply-chain businesses on both sides of the pond, including General Motors. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming Andretti to the UK in its bid to get on to the Formula 1 grid, and what more can she do to ensure that automotive and motorsport supply chains can operate on both sides of the Atlantic?

I was delighted to see my hon. Friend visit the opening of Andretti Global’s new facility in Silverstone last month. I wish it luck as it continues its preparations to enter Formula 1. That investment is another vote of confidence in the world-leading innovation that the UK has to offer. Andretti Global will also specifically benefit from the MOU that we have signed with Indiana, which will enhance our trade relationship in key areas, including advanced manufacturing.

Wine: Pint Measures

14. Whether UK wine companies have sought advice from her Department on preparations for producing wine in pint measures under the Weights and Measures (Intoxicating Liquor) (Amendment) Regulations 2024. (902628)

The 568 ml pint quantity is one of several changes to pre-packed wine sizes that are expected to come into force on 19 September 2024, supporting the thriving UK wine sector by providing opportunities for innovation and greater choice. In light of those changes, Wine GB—which represents producers—said:

“We welcome the chance to be able to harmonise still and sparkling bottle sizes and we are happy to raise a glass to the greater choice that allows UK producers for domestic sales.”

That answer is nowhere near as definitive as the press release that the Minister’s Department put out on 27 December last year—which is still on the Government website—with the headline

“‘Pints’ of wine stocked on Britain’s shelves for the first time ever”.

That headline did not say “will be stocked”, “might be stocked” “could be stocked”, or “to be stocked”; it implied that pints of wine were, and are, available to buy right now in shops across the UK. Will the Government admit that the reality is that there has been little to no demand for, or interest in, that supposedly glorious Brexit benefit, and that in fact it is entirely possible that pints of wine will never be stocked on UK shelves?

It is never difficult to distinguish the hon. Gentleman from a ray of sunshine, is it? Our wine industry is thriving, with over 900 vineyards across Great Britain. The UK wine industry produced 12.2 million bottles of wine in 2022, and our new post-Brexit powers provide us with new options. Those include new legislation that aligns existing sizes across still and sparking pre-packed wine so that both can be sold in 200 ml and 500 ml quantities, for which we know there is good demand.

New Zealand FTA: Environment

16. Whether she has made an assessment of the potential impact of New Zealand’s proposed Fast-track Approvals Bill on its obligations under the UK-New Zealand free trade agreement environment chapter. (902634)

In March, the UK and New Zealand highlighted the importance of our environmental commitments at the first ever environment committee under our new free trade agreement. We continue to engage with New Zealand on implementing the environmental chapter, and will monitor the proposed Bill that the hon. Lady mentioned during its passage through New Zealand’s Parliament.

The New Zealand FTA entered into force on 31 May 2023. It contains a commitment in article 22 that each party will not

“waive or otherwise derogate from, or offer to waive or otherwise derogate from, its environmental laws in a manner that weakens or reduces the protection afforded in that law”.

Is there not a danger that the fast-track approvals will erode those protections? What steps will the Government take to ensure that New Zealand absolutely upholds its commitments under the FTA?

As I said, we will continue to monitor the passage of that proposed legislation, but the hon. Lady must recognise that the UK and New Zealand are incredibly like-minded in these areas—on climate, the environment and clean growth. The environment chapter in our free trade agreement is one of the most ambitious in any FTA anywhere in the world. It breaks new ground for both the UK and New Zealand in supporting our shared climate and environmental goals, clean growth, and the transition to a net zero economy.

Topical Questions

Post Office governance is a priority for the Government, and I have said many times that it is vital that we have the right people leading that organisation. I am therefore pleased to tell the House that, on Wednesday, I announced the appointment of Nigel Railton as its interim chair. Having previously been chief executive of Camelot, Nigel brings a wealth of experience of transforming organisations, and I am confident that he is the right person to lead the Post Office through this period. Nigel Railton will take up his post as soon as possible, and will be invited to give Ministers his views on the future direction of the Post Office in due course.

When will the Government admit that their Brexit dream of people quaffing pints of wine and invoking the spirit of Churchill was always a fantasy, and that the reality is, in fact, a Brexit nightmare of border checks, reduced consumer choice and business closures?

It is nonsense to say that this reduces consumer choice; it actually increases consumer choice. I cannot imagine why anyone would be complaining about the sale of pints of wine. If the hon. Gentleman does not like them, he does not have to buy them.

T4. I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department have been looking into the closure of Kelsale post office, an outreach service in my constituency. Very recently, we voted through more money to subsidise the Post Office, including £50 million for rural branches. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State make sure that that money is allocated? I know that the Post Office is trying to cut costs, but that should not be at the expense of customers in Kelsale. (902643)

I thank my right hon. Friend for her work on this, and she raised this important matter with me at meetings last month. We allocate £50 million for the uncommercial part of the network, and part of that should help the services in her constituency. I know she is disappointed at the closure of the outreach service in Kelsale, but there is an alternative permanent post office branch in Saxmundham, 1.3 miles away. I am happy to continue the conversation between her and the post office to make sure that she gets the services she needs in her constituency.

Shoplifting cost UK retailers £1.8 billion in 2023, the highest figure on record. The Government’s £200 shoplifting threshold has effectively decriminalised this offence, which is costing businesses dear. What discussions has the Minister had with the Home Secretary about scrapping it, as Labour plans to do, so retailers and customers are protected and high street businesses can thrive?

It is not true to say that we have decriminalised thefts under £200. The hon. lady needs to speak to police officers and her local chief constable to make sure she understands how this works. I have worked very closely with the Home Office and the Policing Minister to make sure we have a retail crime action plan, which includes a vexatious offence with more severe sentences for people who assault shop workers. We have got an action plan together and it is working well with retailers, and I am very keen to see her support that plan.

Well, it is not working, and the Minister and the Secretary of State should take this seriously, because it is damaging our high streets and causing huge concern up and down the country. He and the Secretary of State should go and meet those businesses, and hear from them directly.

Turning to another issue, we have seen 14 years of Conservative under-investment in public infrastructure, a failure to provide certainty and a failure to get a grip on the economy. Business investment has also suffered. Had it matched the average investment levels of France, Germany and the US, our GDP would be nearly 4% higher today, and wages would have been boosted by £1,250 a year. Can the Secretary of State outline how she plans to fix this crippling investment gap, and what will she do to make sure businesses get the support they need so that we can get the economic growth this country desperately needs after 14 years of under-investment?

I remember a time when Labour Members were telling everyone that we should not invest in nuclear, and it is under this Conservative Government that we are investing in nuclear infrastructure. That has only happened under Conservative Governments. The hon. Lady asks about the plan. I would remind her about the global investment summit we had in November, which raised nearly £30 billion in one day. No one is better than our current Prime Minister at delivering inward investment for this country. Business investment is rising, and it is rising because of the policies that he and the Chancellor have put in place, such as capital expensing.

T5. Yesterday, I was pleased to meet a number of UK aerospace businesses demonstrating and showcasing extraordinary innovation right here in the United Kingdom, including Safran, which has a significant base in Pitstone in my constituency. Can I ask my hon. Friend what the Department has done to ensure that we can increase aerospace exports? (902644)

I thank my hon. Friend, who I know is a strong champion of aerospace exports in this House. Last year’s autumn statement extended the aerospace technology programme budget by a further five years, with an additional £975 million of new R&D funding from 2025 through to 2030. As part of this vote of confidence in the UK civil space sector, our trade missions and trade promotion activities by my Department and our embassies around the world continue to help companies with export contracts worth millions of pounds.

In 2017, Boris Johnson claimed the UK was “first in line” for a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States. While negotiations opened in May 2020, no progress has been made since October of that year. When does the Secretary of State expect to be able to deliver this alleged Brexit benefit, and what does she think will arrive first—a trade deal with the US or pints of champagne to toast it with?

As everyone on the Government Benches knows, even if we had a trade deal with the US, the hon. Member would be standing there telling us how he would be voting against it. The fact of the matter is that the US is not carrying out any free trade agreements with any country. There is nothing we can do about that, so instead we have been negotiating deals with states at an individual level, as I mentioned. For the last one, the governor of Texas came to the UK to sign a trade deal memorandum of understanding between Texas and the United Kingdom. Our relationship with the US is going well. I spoke about exports increasing, and our trade increasing to £311 billion. Trade with the US is going well. We will continue to pursue a free trade agreement, but trade requires two parties in order to deliver.

Are Ministers as concerned as I am about continued reports that Royal Mail is determined to move away from a six-day service? In a large rural constituency such as mine, with an older population, people continue to rely on the Royal Mail for important communications. Can the Minister make clear that that is not the direction of travel the Government want Royal Mail to go in?

We absolutely agree with that point, and we have been clear with Royal Mail and the regulator Ofcom that we want a continued six-day service. Royal Mail and hopefully Ofcom will have heard what my right hon. Friend and I are saying today: the six-day service must continue.

T2. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) to the Prime Minister yesterday, with the Republic of Ireland now employing a form of border control, seemingly reinstating a hard border, what discussions have taken place regarding the ability for business vehicles to pass through the border, with delays due to onerous checks by Garda Síochána and Republic of Ireland and EU border staff? (902640)

Of course the Government as a whole are monitoring this situation very closely. We have very good relations with the Government of the Republic of Ireland, and I will pass on the hon. Member’s comments to the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Office.

My hon. Friend will know how committed this Government are to the steel industry, but at the moment it is going through a transition. We care about having primary steel-making capacity in this country—that is something we want to do and to keep, but as she knows, even now we still import ore. I know she is concerned about British Steel and its future. I will be visiting her constituency in Scunthorpe and we will be able to discuss those matters further.

T3. Yesterday, the BBC reported on expert analysis that has been submitted to the transition board, indicating that cutting 2,800 directly employed Tata Steel employees could lead to up to 9,500 additional job losses, due to the huge number of contractors and sub-contractors who are indirectly employed by Tata. When the Government handed £500 million of taxpayers’ money to Tata to do that deal, had they made a full assessment of the job losses: not just those directly employed by Tata who would lose their jobs, but the vast number of jobs that will be lost through the supply chains and contractors? (902642)

The hon. Gentleman and I both sit on the Tata transition board, which has a dedicated group to look at the welfare of contractors and supply chain partners. We will ensure that we support those people as much as the direct employees of Tata.

One of the many benefits of Brexit has been our ability to take back control of our trade negotiations. The comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership is one of the most exciting, so will the Minister provide an update on the status of our accession to CPTPP?

I am delighted to be able to do so, and delighted to have such an enthusiastic supporter of CPTPP, which is an enormous benefit to this country. The UK joining will take its share of global GDP from around 11% to just over 15%. The UK will be the first country ever to accede to CPTPP, which includes most of the fastest growing markets in the Asia-Pacific region: the UK joining shows that it goes beyond the region. On accession, we are delighted that Royal Assent has been given to our Trade (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) Act 2024, and we are looking forward to UK ratification in the coming weeks. Three of the 11 parties have ratified so far—Japan, Chile and Singapore—and we look forward to further parties ratifying it in the coming weeks, to make progress on this extraordinary opportunity for this country.

T6. Last year, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee heard that the lack of a coherent agritrade policy, together with a complex set of import and export certification rules, is preventing rural businesses, particularly food producers, from trading outside the UK. How will the Department support UK producers to deal with complex trade red tape? (902646)

I gave evidence in front of the EFRA Committee just last week on this very issue with our Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Sir Mark Spencer). We put in a huge amount of resources. We have a number of commissioners and trade support people around European Union countries and around the world promoting agrifood exports. I add that we also have a record level of services and exports to the EU, some of which will be in the agriculture sector. We have, contrary to the constant doom and gloom that the hon. Lady brings to this question time every five weeks, a very good story to tell about the successes of the United Kingdom when it comes to trade.

Scottish salmon is just one of the Scottish businesses that serve to prop up the failing UK economy, yet trade organisation Salmon Scotland revealed recently that the salmon industry in Scotland is losing £100 million a year in trade with the EU. Since 2019, that has amounted to a 17% drop in trade. What message does the Secretary of State have for this business in Scotland, where all businesses and two thirds of the electorate rejected this hard Tory Brexit?

We hear this from the Scottish National party all the time, opposing everything in terms of UK trade agreements. It is actually Scottish goods that benefit from so many of these trade agreements that we have negotiated, such as whisky when it comes to the Australian and New Zealand deals and the coming deal we hope to do with India. All these deals benefit Scottish goods in particular, yet the SNP has opposed or abstained on every single trade deal that has ever been done by either this country or by the European Union. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman knows it is true. The SNP has abstained on Japan and on Singapore; it is against Canada, against South Africa, against Korea, against Australia and against New Zealand; and its Members even failed to show up on the Ukraine agreement. It is a woeful record when it comes to supporting Scotland from the SNP.

The Government launched our critical imports and supply chain strategy earlier this year, and I chaired the Critical Imports Council last month. We are bringing together 23 organisations to make sure that our supply chains are robust, and I look forward to my hon. Friend’s input into that.

The village of Kirkliston in my community recently became the latest to lose its post office—there have been a whole series of closures. That community is not isolated, but it is not in the centre of Edinburgh, and there is no alternative. As I say, it is one of a series, so can the Minister tell us what the Government are going to try to do to halt this decline in post offices?

As I said in response to an earlier question, we put in £50 million to support the uncommercial parts of the network. I am sorry that the post office that the hon. Lady mentions has closed. I am happy to meet her to see what we can do to ensure that there is a local post office. There are network access requirements on the Post Office, and 99% of the population must be within 3 miles of a post office. If that is not the case in her area, I am happy to do what I can to ensure that that is rectified.

When the Minister for Trade Policy, the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), bragged to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) earlier that his trade envoys had to have a qualification of “diplomacy and discretion”, did he have in mind the former trade envoy to Colombia, the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies)?

If the Opposition want to make an accusation, they should go ahead and do so, rather than this playground game that they are playing, which is insulting to every trade envoy, on both sides of the House, who is delivering for this country.

Green Resource Engineering Ltd, a highly successful company in Willand, already exports £1 million of engineering business to South Korea every year and has done so for the last six years. The managing director, Richard Booth, let me know that exporting to Korea is already straightforward; by contrast, getting parts in from Europe has become a real headache. Rather than fretting about a free trade agreement with Korea, how are the Government monitoring additional red tape after having left the European single market?

We have the most comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU—more than with any other country in the world—so that should not be the reason for difficulties in bringing in components. If the hon. Member has something specific that we can look at, I will be happy to take a look, but we have been doing everything to ensure that trade—in auto in particular—continues to boom, and it is booming. We were able to stop the issue with rules of origin, which was going to have a deadline at the end of this year. In terms of specific components that are having trouble getting across the border, I will need a bit more detail to provide him with an answer, but that is not about leaving the EU.

India is the second largest market for Scottish whisky in the world, making it an extremely important market for the Scottish economy. Currently, whisky exported to India has a 150% import tariff placed on it. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that, in any trade deal signed with India, that tariff is reduced?

We are engaged in a live negotiation with India at the moment and the hon. Member would not expect me to comment on the progress of a live negotiation. India is obviously in a pre-election period as well. However, I can tell him that Scotch whisky tariffs are very much part of that negotiation; everybody knows that that is one of the key UK objectives. May I perhaps add that, if we do get a good deal on Scotch whisky, I will look forward to the SNP for the first time actually voting for a trade deal with India?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be odd and inappropriate for the United Kingdom to impose any form of arms embargo against Israel when His Majesty’s armed forces are in the region and working with Israel to provide humanitarian support, and the UK would expect Israel to help in the protection of His Majesty’s forces?

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a good point. The Prime Minister addressed this issue yesterday. I know that there is a lot of interest in arms exports to Israel, and yesterday my entire Department was blockaded by protesters, meaning that civil servants who needed to get to work could not do so. The Government continue to monitor closely the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the strategic export licensing criteria. The Government take their defence export responsibilities extremely seriously and operate some of the most robust export controls in the world.

Could the Secretary of State explain what she is doing to help businesses in my constituency that have difficulties because we do not have the skills to increase the business—they cannot expand because they lack some skills? Could she explain what she is doing to help with that skills shortage?

I thank my hon. Friend for championing businesses in her constituency. We are putting £3.8 billion into skills training for people who work for businesses, which is important. We are also improving skills for entrepreneurs and business owners through our help to grow management programme—it can be found on the help to grow webpage—a 12-week mini-MBA, which is 90% funded by the Government. We also have “Help to Grow: Management Essentials”, which offers two hours of totally free online training for aspirant new business owners.

Can the Secretary of State tell us about the UK’s supply of cyber-security professionals and whether a lot of that work is now being offshored?

I am afraid that I do not have the details to answer that question. On the face of it, given the information I have, it is not something I have heard before, but we can write back with more information. However, it does not sound like that is the case.

In my constituency we have the fantastic company Selwyn’s, whose seafood is first class. It exports a lot; what is the Government’s current assessment of the export of cockles and other seafood in the Welsh market?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and her interest in this important sector. We regularly meet the UK seafood sector, which can often be subject to very high tariffs from foreign markets, but the UK’s quality shines through. It is a key part of many of our current trade negotiations. I urge her to watch this space. We are always happy to meet the company concerned, but I can reassure her that when it comes to seafood exports, the Department is constantly engaged both in trade policy and in the support we give our exporters.